The Cultural Gutter

beyond good and bad, there is awesome

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

The Plague of the White Knight

Gutter Guest
Posted September 13, 2012

Carol is editing the Midnight Madness and Vanguard Programme Blogs for the Toronto International Film Festival. She will be back next month. This week, Guest Star Clarice Meadows writes about games.

(Note: There are mild spoilers for the mid-point of the game Max Payne 3 and the end of Bioshock 2 and Halo 3.)

I recently had the brainflash that games have gotten extremely reliant on the “White Knight Savior” and “Save The Cheerleader, Save The World,” goal-setting style of storytelling. Is there an over-reliance on these ideas? There will always be a demand for the “White Knight Savior” story. There will always be a love of goal-setting games. But can there be more games that don’t rely on this and will they ever be treated as more than just an artsy game or some fluke in popularity? And will the games that currently fulfill this need become popular in the way that most Triple A titles relying on an overused story device have?

I’ve played many games in my life: using console systems from the Vectrex to my Xbox 360, and playing games from Joust to Mass Effect 3. The games that involved a “saving someone else” storyline started for me with King’s Quest V, received as a shared Christmas gift with my brother in the early 90s, and went all the way through to this spring’s release of Max Payne 3. While playing Halo 3, Bioshock 2 and Max Payne 3 all in a row, it occurred to me that the “White Knight Savior” and the “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” storyline, works best when it’s subverted, but the narrative has been overused to the point that it is no longer actually satisfying.

I should clarify what I mean by, “White Knight Savior.” Specifically, I’m thinking of those scenarios where the playable character is impeccable and pure in some strange way and is focused entirely on rescuing another person. Often the savior is male and the distressed person is female. A typical example of this is Mario jumping and headbutting his way through turtles, toxic plants, and other odd adversaries to rescue Princess Peach, who languishes in another castle.  “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” just extends the idea to: saving this one distressed character means that you have saved the world… or galaxy. Or, at least, that character’s world. This phrase, taken from the since cancelled NBC show Heroes, perfectly encapsulates that idea.

But in playing all three games in a row, the final game in my list, Max Payne 3, had an unexpected emotional impact on me. It affected me simply by having both an anti-hero and a moment where a specific game-set goal I was trying to reach was taken out of my grasp. The first two games, Halo 3 and Bioshock 2 did not give me that same effect at all.

With Halo 3, I unfortunately found myself bored immediately. Its savior story was not particularly innovative. Master Chief, the playable character, is an impersonal armored space marine type who fights parasitic aliens and religious fanatics to save both the excessively feminine human-created artificial intelligence, Cortana, and all sentient life in the galaxy. On one hand, saving the galaxy is a nice overblown goal that brought to mind the cheerleader idea, but it just felt silly that an artificial intelligence needs saving and often appears as a female avatar in somewhat revealing clothing. Unfortunately, she’s not dressed as a cheerleader to complete the comparison. So close though!

Following Halo 3, I played through Bioshock 2, which had a little more fun with the “White Knight Savior” story. Specifically, the player can choose whether or not to save the Little Sister characters: young girls who have been genetic manipulated and mutated into creepy little vampire creatures. However, in the main story, your goal is still to save Elena, the Little Sister you had once been linked to. In this sequel, you play what is known as a Big Daddy, who acts as the little girls’ protector and helper. Even though you are slaughtering your way through insane, mutated residents of the underwater city of Rapture, you are still somehow pure in intent. Once you’ve saved Elena, you need her to help you through the remainder of the game. At the very end, although you have saved her, she is unable to save you, which at least takes out any sort of “Happily Ever After” element to the storyline.

Once I got to Max Payne 3, I was absolutely sick of the “White Knight Savior” story prevailing in the other two games. Max Payne 3 at least has no “White Knight” aspect to the game, and I found that the ways in which the savior story was subverted made the game that much more interesting. The game is a third person shooter, starring Max Payne, a former New York City police detective who’s been kicked off of the force and on to hard times. The majority of the gameplay involves Max Payne traveling around São Paolo trying to rescue members of a family he’s been hired to protect. As you can imagine, this rescue operation involves lots of guns and lots and lots of ammunition.

With Max Payne as an nihilistic anti-hero, the noir elements of the game become obvious. On the screen, between scenes of the game, Payne wanders around his apartment, drinking and pill-popping his way to oblivion while the sunset peeks through the blinds and slow, sad jazz music plays. The main surprise, however, is that he ends up not being a savior at all, because he does not succeed in saving everyone. In fact, it appears that he gets these people into more trouble just by being there. Having, mid-gameplay, one of the characters I’d been working so hard to save suddenly be killed in front of me was a shocking experience. This does not happen as often as you’d think in games, and when I’ve spent hours working towards a goal that is taken away from me in a moment, it is unbalancing and creates a huge emotional impact.

Games are usually focused on accomplishing goals. With Halo 3 and Bioshock 2, these goals were obvious and the only thing keeping you from accomplishing them was either to die, in which case you’d be reborn shortly after, or to quit. In Max Payne 3, finding that I couldn’t accomplish a goal created an emotional situation that other forms of media have not replicated. Video games and the video game world have been fighting for recognition as an art form over the past few years. By mimicking the film noir style in Max Payne 3, there’s obviously a continuing effort to make video games more of an art form, and yet the style didn’t cause an emotional reaction in me the way that a cruel trick of the game designers did. I found myself staring at the TV for a good fifteen minutes, completely unsure what I was going to have to go through next. This particular way of destroying the typical savior story was finely tuned, frustrating and rather wicked on the part of the game designers.

With Halo 3 and Bioshock 2 plodding through the same old storyline I’ve seen countless times before, the addition of an anti-hero and the frustration of a goal was exciting and different. And yet, neither of these ideas are new! It’s possible that it was just the newness of something I hadn’t seen in a while that excited me, but I want more. I want stories to be told in new and interesting ways. This will require publishers to take risks, but I have hope that it will happen.

~~~

This week’s  Guest Star is Clarice MeadowsClarice Meadows is a video games industry veteran, writer, and aspiring game designer. See more of her writing at Plays Like a Girl where she discusses video games, design elements, NYC games events, geeky things, and feminism in games. She can be found on twitter @embereye where she talks about all of these things and posts pictures of her cats (who seem to be in love with the actor Matt Bomer).

Comments

5 Responses to “The Plague of the White Knight”

  1. Guest Post on The Cultural Gutter and News! « Plays Like A Girl
    September 13th, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    [...] have a piece featured on the site The Cultural Gutter about the proliferation of savior stories in video games! Woohoo! Go check out The Cultural Gutter [...]

  2. Starsheep Interactive Corporation » This Week In Video Game Criticism: From redemptive violence to nostalgia
    September 18th, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

    [...] games or something else? Hint: He posits it might be something else. Carol Borden’s The Plague of the White Knight. After playing Max Payne 3, Bioshock 2 and Halo 3, she is tired of the trope of the “White [...]

  3. This Week In Video Game Criticism: From redemptive violence to nostalgia
    September 18th, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

    [...] Borden’s The Plague of the White Knight. After playing Max Payne 3, Bioshock 2 and Halo 3, she is tired of the trope of the “White [...]

  4. CHRISZAMANILLO.COM » This Week in Videogame Blogging:September 16th
    September 19th, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    [...] Borden’s The Plague of the White Knight. After playing Max Payne 3, Bioshock 2 and Halo 3 she is tired of the trope of the “White [...]

  5. The Plague of the White Knight | Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit
    October 16th, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    [...] FULL ARTICLE This entry was posted in Video Games. Bookmark the permalink. ← Silent House [...]

Leave a Reply





  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    The Royal Court Theatre hosts a conversation among former Anonymous LulzSec members facilitated by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman.

    ~

    “Japan’s estimated population at the time of their last census was 127 million, and people have been living on this small collection of islands since the Jomon period (~12,000 BCE.) In an increasingly crowded country with a strong traditional belief in ghosts and hauntings, the question of avoiding a marauding ghost becomes impossible to solve, without outside help.”Atlas Obscura has more (with neat illustrations).

    ~

    At Mostly Film, Blake Backlash writes about films “mixing of Hollywood’s Grande Dames with Grand Guignol.”  “Such cinematic mixing of Grande Dames and Grand Guignol had its heyday in the second-half of the sixties, and such films are sometimes (more-or-less) affectionately known as psycho-biddy pictures. They tended to feature an actress over 50 in some sort of peril, a melodramatic plot and a title that ends in a question mark.  But there is another, related tradition that goes back further that I think we could place these films in.” (via Dr. Giallo)

    ~

    “I want to tell you about when violent campaigns against harmless bloggers weren’t any halfway decent troll’s idea of a good time—even the then-malicious would’ve found it too easy to be fun. When the punches went up, not down. Before the best players quit or went criminal or were changed by too long a time being angry. When there was cruelty, yes, and palpable strains of sexism and racism and every kind of phobia, sure, but when these things had the character of adolescents pushing the boundaries of cheap shock, disagreeable like that but not criminal. Not because that time was defensible—it wasn’t, not really—but because it was calmer and the rage wasn’t there yet. Because trolling still meant getting a rise for a laugh, not making helpless people fear for their lives because they’re threatening some Redditor’s self-proclaimed monopoly on reason. I want to tell you about it because I want to make sense of how it is now and why it changed.” Emmett Rensin writes more at Vox.

    ~

    At Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Elyse has some things to say about reading Romance. “In the end, it doesn’t matter what I read. It doesn’t even matter that I do read, quite frankly. What matters is that we live in a world where fiction aimed directly at women is perceived as garbage. That doesn’t say anything at all about me, it says a lot about what needs to change.”

    ~

    Brain Pickings looks at the life and work of Tove Jansson and the wisdom of her character, Too-ticky. “Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.” (via Kate Laity)

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: